12 Old Words That Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms

miss_j/iStock/Getty Images Plus
miss_j/iStock/Getty Images Plus

English has changed a lot in the last several hundred years, and there are many words once used that we would no longer recognize today. For whatever reason, we started pronouncing them differently, or stopped using them entirely, and they became obsolete. There are some old words, however, that are nearly obsolete, but we still recognize them because they were lucky enough to get stuck in set phrases that have lasted across the centuries. Here are 12 words that survived by getting fossilized in idioms.

1. Wend

You rarely see a wend without a way. You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. Wend was just another word for go in Old English. The past tense of wend was went and the past tense of go was gaed. People used both until the 15th century, when go became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where went hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.

2. Deserts

The desert from the phrase "just deserts" is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for deserve, and it was used in English from the 13th century to mean "that which is deserved." When you get your just deserts, you get your due. In some cases, that may mean you also get dessert, a word that comes from a later French borrowing.

3. Eke

If we see eke at all these days, it's when we "eke out" a living, but it comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow. It's the same word that gave us eke-name for "additional name," which later, through misanalysis of "an eke-name" became nickname.

4. Sleight

"Sleight of hand" is one tricky phrase. Sleight is often miswritten as slight and for good reason. Not only does the expression convey an image of light, nimble fingers, which fits well with the smallness implied by slight, but an alternate expression for the concept is legerdemain, from the French léger de main," literally, "light of hand." Sleight comes from a different source, a Middle English word meaning "cunning" or "trickery." It's a wily little word that lives up to its name.

5. Dint

Dint comes from the oldest of Old English, where it originally referred to a blow struck with a sword or other weapon. It came to stand for the whole idea of subduing by force, and is now fossilized in our expression "by dint of X" where X can stand for your charisma, hard work, smarts, or anything you can use to accomplish something else.

6. Roughshod

Nowadays we see this word in the expression "to run/ride roughshod" over somebody or something, meaning to tyrannize or treat harshly. It came about as a way to describe the 17th century version of snow tires. A "rough-shod" horse had its shoes attached with protruding nail heads in order to get a better grip on slippery roads. It was great for keeping the horse on its feet, but not so great for anyone the horse might step on.

7. Fro

The fro in "to and fro" is a fossilized remnant of a Northern English or Scottish way of pronouncing from. It was also part of other expressions that didn't stick around, like "fro and till," "to do fro" (to remove), and "of or fro" (for or against).

8. Hue

The hue of "hue and cry," the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd, is not the same hue as the term we use for color. The color one comes from the Old English word híew, for "appearance." This hue comes from the Old French hu or heu, which was basically an onomatopoeia, like hoot.

9. Kith

The kith part of "kith and kin" came from an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance. It also stood for native land or country, the place you were most familiar with. The expression "kith and kin" originally meant your country and your family, but later came to have the wider sense of friends and family.

10. Lurch

When you leave someone "in the lurch," you leave them in a jam, in a difficult position. But while getting left in the lurch may leave you staggering around and feeling off-balance, the lurch in this expression has a different origin than the staggery one. The balance-related lurch comes from nautical vocabulary, while the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score. By extension, it came to stand for the state of getting the better of someone or cheating them.

11. Umbrage

Umbrage comes from the Old French ombrage (shade, shadow), and it was once used to talk about actual shade from the sun. It took on various figurative meanings having to do with doubt and suspicion or the giving and taking of offense. To give umbrage was to offend someone, to "throw shade." However, these days when we see the term umbrage at all, it is more likely to be because someone is taking, rather than giving it.

12. Shrift

We might not know what a shrift is anymore, but we know we don't want to get a short one. Shrift was a word for a confession, something it seems we might want to keep short, or a penance imposed by a priest, something we would definitely want to keep short. But the phrase "short shrift" came from the practice of allowing a little time for the condemned to make a confession before being executed. So in that context, shorter was not better.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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